The viola is a key element of a string quartet and an orchestra. Though this instrument resembles a violin, its size and tuning differ. When it is played well, the viola has a deep, rich, beautiful sound. Yet the viola is frequently the butt of jokes from musicians who play other string instruments. The 20th century brought the viola new respect--although not enough to do away with the institution of the viola joke--and new repertoire.
The modern viola was first played in Italy in the 16th century. The members of the modern orchestral string family are named after derivations of the word “viola.” According to Viola-in-music.com, violin comes from “violino,” or “soprano viola”; “violone” means “bass viola”; and “violoncello” means “smaller bass viola.” The alto-tenor instrument--the modern viola--has kept the original family name.
The viola da gamba is an early cousin of the modern violin family, with a similar shape and a mellower sound. Some history enthusiasts play the viola da gamba, and although it shares part of a name with the viola, it is not the same instrument.
Violin vs. Viola
Violas are similar to violins in their body shape and in the technique used to play them. Violas are larger than violins, use thicker strings and are tuned differently. From highest to lowest, the violin’s strings are tuned E, A, D and G. The viola’s highest string is A, followed by D, G and a low C string. Violists also play off a different clef, or musical staff, than violinists. Alto clef, also known as viola clef or C clef, places middle C on the middle line of the musical staff, while treble clef (G clef) places the B above middle C on the middle line.
Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Paganini and Dvorak are among the many famous composers and violin players who also played the viola. Composer Paul Hindemith was a virtuoso violist. According to Viola-in-music.com, Jimi Hendrix also started his musical career on the viola. Violists may know of Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), an English violist, or William Primrose (1904-1982), a Scottish orchestral and solo viola player whose legacy includes many solo arrangements for viola and a music library in his name at Brigham Young University.
According to Carl Rahkonen, Ph.D., the viola is considered a “second-class citizen in orchestra.” Orchestral viola parts are less difficult and melodic than other string parts, and the viola’s range has less “carrying power” than that of the violin or cello. Rahkonen concludes that while viola jokes are told for fun, they also reinforce “the hierarchical structure of the orchestra and . . . voice unspoken but widely understood stereotypes.”
Compared to the violin and cello, there is a relatively limited amount of music written for solo viola. Violists auditioning for orchestral chairs frequently play Bach cello concertos to show off their skills and tone. The 20th century, however, brought many new works for viola. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), for example, was a composer and violist who focused a great deal of attention on writing for the viola. Bela Bartok (1881-1945) also wrote for solo viola. According to a 1985 bibliography by Franz Zeyringer, a viola player has a repertoire of over 14,000 pieces to draw from. This number has continued to grow.